At 20th Century Fox Studios in the 1960s, Lillian Gallo earned the nickname Mrs. Average America. She turned out to be anything but.
Then a producer's assistant, she was asked to screen the dailies of nearly every television show in the Fox pipeline. She was unafraid to express genuine emotion, Gallo later recalled, so if she laughed or cried during a scene, producers believed the heartland would follow.
By the early 1970s she was producing TV movies and breaking ground for women in the industry. When Gallo joined forces with screenwriter Fay Kanin, they became one of the first female producing teams in Hollywood and established their own production company in 1978.
Because Gallo "started to produce so early, and she did it so well … she set a tone and a path for women. She helped open arenas to women," said author Mollie Gregory, who has documented the modern emergence of women as producers in TV and film.
Gallo, a longtime resident of Beverly Hills, died June 6 of Alzheimer's disease at the Motion Picture and Television Fund's retirement home in Woodland Hills, said her daughter, Mary Ann Gallo. She was 84.
The 1975 television movie "Hustling" was perhaps Gallo's best-known project. Based on Gaily Sheehy's book-length expose on prostitution in America, it starred Jill Clayburgh in an Emmy-nominated role as a streetwalker. Although "Hustling" was "raw and of the streets," Gallo later said, it told the "plight of prostitutes in a very intimate way."
She liked to tell "personal stories about the human condition," she said in a 1979 New York Times article headlined "TV Producing — No Longer a Man's World."
When Gallo's two children, who were adopted, began asking questions about where they came from, she was inspired to make the 1974 TV film "Stranger Who Looks Like Me," featuring Meredith Baxter as an adult adoptee searching for her biological parents.
In the late 1970s, Brandon Stoddard, then an executive at ABC, signed Gallo and Kanin to an exclusive contract, effectively paying them not to offer their services to NBC or CBS.
Their work had a "humanistic quality," Stoddard told the New York Times in 1979. "Unlike men, they're not afraid to express emotion. They treat emotion with great dignity, as a source of strength rather than weakness."
After "Hustling," Gallo and Kanin formed their production company but produced only one film together, "Fun and Games," which starred Valerie Harper in a tale about workplace harassment. In Gregory's 2002 book "Women Who Run the Show," Kanin said the partners were "very choosy" about projects, but Gregory offered another theory.
"Though they enjoyed working together, they were really bucking the times," Gregory said in an interview last week. "Lillian told me that people found it shocking to be on the set with two women producers."
The daughter of Polish immigrants, Lillian Drazek was born April 12, 1928, in Springfield, Mass., and earned a degree in journalism in 1949 from the University of Michigan.
She spent the next four years in the Marines, becoming a captain and serving at the Pentagon. Gallo regularly credited her military years for the discipline and resourcefulness needed to succeed in show business.
Through a game of charades, Gallo met writer-director George Axelrod and soon became his assistant. In 1955, while working on Broadway, she met her future husband, actor Lew Gallo, when he appeared in "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" They had been married for 42 years when he died at 71 in 2000.
In the late 1950s, she came to Hollywood to work on "The Frank Sinatra Show" and met producer William Self, who mentored her at 20th Century Fox, where she worked over the next decade on such shows as "Peyton Place" and "Batman."
When Barry Diller, then an ABC executive, named Gallo director of Movies of the Weekend, she considered it her big break. In that role, she supervised 22 movies, including Steven Spielberg's "Duel" (1971), and moved into producing in the early 1970s with "Haunts of the Very Rich," a TV movie.
"She was a strange, interesting combination. She was tenacious and generous," Gregory said. "She felt so strongly that if you did your job well, there were no limits, no barriers to what women could do. At the same time, she was generous in helping younger women get ahold of their abilities and careers."
In a statement, Marcy Carsey, who established herself as an influential TV producer in the 1980s with "The Cosby Show," said Gallo had "uncommon intelligence, focus, dignity and work ethic. But under all that was a huge, selfless heart."
Even after Gallo produced her final TV movie, the 1998 thriller "I Know What You Did," she refused to say she was retired and continued to try to develop projects until about two years ago.
In addition to her daughter, Mary Ann, Gallo is survived by a son, Tom, and two grandchildren.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Church of the Good Shepherd, 504 N. Roxbury Drive, Beverly Hills.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times